FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

After Everyone is Gone

The funeral of an uncle in a family of faith is both a sad and yet a happy affair.  With a strong belief in life continuing after exiting a mortal body, stepping through the veil it just one more event in our eternal progression.

We weep at the loss of contact, advise, laughter, touch, feel, smell and idiosyncrasies of our deceased loved one but not as a result of any thought that they are permanently lost.  After all, the end of mortality is actually a graduation day.  It is all part of the plan.  Part of the process.

Family and friends gather at the funeral memorial to offer condolences, statements of love and to honor his life and good works.

In our community, a member or two of the family usually speaks at the funeral along with a church leader in an hour long program  They offer memories and funny anecdotes from the life of the deceased, finishing with statements of faith and eternal plans of growth and life. 

Then the transport of the body to the cemetery and its burial moves forward.

We line our cars in a funeral procession, light our headlights and slowly drive in a half-mile-long train winding our way through the city behind a slow hearse and police escort. 

Well, normally …

I hear his voice in my head saying, “ Oh bother.  More uncomfortable suits and ties.  More flowers than any man could reasonably want or enjoy.  More ceremony to appease the living ….  Hey! (wink and chuckle) There are a lot of good looking women here.” 


I laugh at the thought.  His kids did make a lot of effort to remove some of formal stodginess out of the burial process.  Except for his wife and daughter, the limos and motored procession of mourners is left at the cemetery gate to find their way to the grave on foot.

His body arrives in style in a caisson transport.  The team pulling it could be better, but there aren’t many matched teams in use today, so you do the best you can. 

The caisson is pure class though.  White, beveled glass windows that sparkle, and here in the west, the top hat is replaced by a cowboy hat. 

I verbally salute him, “You did it!  This is cool!  The Caddy body hauler is still parked in the garage where it belongs waiting to carry the fairer sex, not a manly man.”


His casket is borne by sons and grandsons to its final resting place and carefully set in place.  The sons carefully escort their mother to her chair near the grave.  They remove their boutonnieres and place them on the casket saying one last goodbye, briefly laying their hand on its finished surface before moving back to their own families so the proceedings can continue.

Everyone gathers close.  The officiator nods to the Veteran detail and a 21-gun salute rings through the winter air.  The commander of the local Veteran group is assisted by another member in carefully folding the flag that has covered their compatriot’s casket.  They respectfully present it to the grieving widow.

The grave is dedicated by the officiator, who then thanks all for attending and finishes saying the family would like all to return to the church for a meal of funeral potatoes, ham, salad, green Jello with shredded carrots in it and red Kool-aid.


The family reunion slowly moves away to continue their conversations, well wishing and photo taking back at the church … but I stay … alone.  I walk over to the city crew who will lower the casket and vault lid into the ground and tell them that they are burying my uncle.  That I’ll stay and watch.  That I have a great interest in the level of respect they afford his remains.

They look at me like I’m a little nuts, but my demeanor does not brook disbelief or misunderstanding.

Twenty minutes later, the pile of dirt is gone.  It hasn’t even left a stain on the surrounding grass.  The chairs and astroturf are gone.  The noise of the backhoe has been silenced. 

I stand by the effusive display of flowers and speak to my uncle.   “Well, they got you here ok.  I loved the caisson and 21-gun salute.  Your grandkids enjoyed letting the flotilla of white balloons gain their freedom in the sky.  Sorry about the flowers, but they won’t be here too long.  Your body is safe and honorably buried.  I’ll stop by later to make sure your headstone is well placed.”


I’ve missed the meal back at the church.  That’s ok.  My duty was at the grave.  I’ll see the family another time. 

A short three-step-stroll takes me to the graves of my grandparents.  I nod and say “hello” … and … “I’ll be back in a second”.  Three more steps take me to the graves of my great grandparents.  I touch their stone and say “Hi” knowing that none of them are here listening.  They are all talking to my uncle, catching up on events. 

However, I grin knowing they’ll all glance my way and laugh … who can resist watching me do a cemetery soft shoe shuffle before I turn with final nod and wave as I start the hike back to my car..

19 September 2010 Posted by | Cemetery, Tombstone | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cemetery Tours – The Stops Are Worth It

In my younger years, the goal of any on-road excursion was to arrive well under the forecast travel time.   Then one day I got smart. 

With a lifelong interest in genealogy, I’ve always spent a lot of time walking through cemeteries looking for information about my family.  Consequently, even the concentration associated with ‘fast’ trips could not keep my eyes from searching out groups of tombstones along the way.

I remembered the names of all the little towns and waypoints not with road signs but with images of their cemeteries in my mind.

Finally, I succumbed to the desire to pull off the road and wander among the tombstones, regardless of how much time it would add to the trip.  It was the best driving decision I’d made in years.

After a quick drive through it to plan my walking route, I parked and tour began. 

The stones told stories of many mothers who had died young.  Heartbreak leapt off the markers of many of the children.  Inscriptions written by parents, children and siblings evidenced their emotion in poems, scriptural quotes and statements describing the valiant lives of their lost loved ones. 

The sweep of diseases that swept through town were chronicled in the old markers.  Humor was found on the stones of jolly grandfathers and favorite uncles.

The story of the town emerged during my short visit.  Inscriptions read early in the tour had added relevance as they tied to obvious disasters that afflicted families and friends throughout the cemetery.  At times, I retraced my steps to find the markers with common themes.  Other steps were retraced as family relationships became evident and I built their family trees in my mind.

My wayside cemetery tours have always been time well spent.  Now when I motor by the communities, I don’t envision the Gas-and-Go pit stops, nor the clutter of junk along the highway.  Instead, my minds eye sees the town as it used to be.  The citizens of earlier days stroll down the streets.  I see the families that used to live there.  I spot the old surnames on the mailboxes of today’s residents. 

Sometimes unique surnames on the boxes will allow me to think, “Yes, I know your “Loving Mother, Confidant and Friend” and your Father, “Beloved” who said “Death Has No Hold On Me.”

Take the time in your own journeys to really get to know the places along the way.  Spend a little time in their ‘histories in stone’ and enjoy the lessons of history, love, humor and faith written in stone.  You’ll arrive home with memories of places and times that you never knew but reside in the ‘favorites’ folder in your memory.

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1 August 2010 Posted by | Cemetery, Genealogy, Tombstone | , , | Leave a comment

Grave Witching

I’ve heard from a number of folks who read my earlier posts about Grave Witching to find lost or unmarked graves in cemeteries, farms and other locations.  All of them are active ‘witchers’ using the craft to locate lost graves of loved ones, military burials and lost graves in old cemeteries.

As noted in the earlier posts, I’ve used ‘witch sticks’ to locate buried water and power lines for decades as a matter of need, without thought that the activity may seem strange to folks who haven’t seen it done.

Growing up, I frequently saw people bend a couple of metal rods or lengths of wire into short handles and then find the water lines to their corrals, homes, churches, etc., and then toss the sticks and start digging.  The rods were just a tool so they could dig in the right spot and not waste any time and effort, without any more thought than grabbing a circuit locator to find wiring in our walls today. 

I never thought of using witch sticks to find lost graves until articles started to show up in smaller news publications around the world in recent years. 

Wondering if I could locate ‘bodies’ – alive or dead, I made a pair of sticks and then did a search for the giggling bodies of some of our granddaughters scattered across the living room floor.  Sure enough, every time I came to one of them, the sticks crossed and then opened again after I passed by the wee lasses, so the ‘alive’ part of the question was answered.  What about finding the ‘dead’ in their burial locations?

Knowing that I still have the ‘touch’, I’ll take a set of sticks up to the old burial grounds of my ancestors this summer and find the exact location of their graves.

Jack Robinson told me that he frequently uses sticks to find the lost graves of veterans in his efforts to clean up their burial locations.  He also brings and buried tombstones up to the current level of the soil.   Read about his project on his site, Resurrection Mission ~ Protecting Endangered Cemeteries

No all folks use witch sticks to locate lost graves.  Robert Nichols, cemetery sexton of the First Presbyterian Church of Rockaway, New Jersey, enlisted the high-tech help of Ithaca College to search for unmarked graves.  Read the article here.  (It loads slowly.  Be patient.)

If you haven’t seen someone using witch sticks to find lost graves, you’ll enjoy the three videos below.  They are followed by a video of the folks from Ithaca College using their ground penetrating radar equipment with the same goal in mind.

Are you going to give it a try yourself?  You may find the burial spots of some of your ancestral family members on the old homestead too.   Good Luck!



  Click on this link to view the video of Ithaca College students using ground penetrating radar to find unmarked graves.  

25 June 2010 Posted by | Cemetery | , , , | Leave a comment

Abandoned Cemeteries

I’ve spent several years trying to find the actual burial location of a great granduncle and his family.  I knew where they had died but the family was not mentioned in any of the burial records of cemeteries in the area.

Last week, I found the mention of the Simeon Cemetery in Cherry County, Nebraska.  Where was it?   As it turns out, it is located on a farm about 20 miles southwest of where the family died.

Of course, my first thought was to see if anyone had walked through the stones and later posted the data about them on Find-a-grave.  In my initial search, it wasn’t listed, but last year, a wonderful person added many tombstone inscriptions from the cemetery in conjunction with its creation in the Find-a-grave database. 

Although my family wasn’t included in the listings, I had enough information to create memorials for them.  Unfortunately, the exact location of the cemetery wasn’t listed with anything other than the cemetery name.

After one last search a posting about the cemetery surfaced.  The search results included a posting written by Marianne Beel of Valentine, Nebraska that was complete with the transcriptions of inscriptions of the 68 tombstones she was able to read.  Of even more help in my quest, she’d noted that the cemetery was on the P. H. Young Ranch 25 miles south of Valentine in Section 12, Range 29, Township 31. 

Launching the Acme Mapper website made it easy to find the location of the cemetery on the USGS maps on the site.  A quick click and a satellite photo of the area was on the screen.  A jog in the dirt road established an fixed geographical feature in the image.   Launching Google Earth, I was quickly able to zoom in on the earth photo and spot the old trees on the sides of the cemetery.   Clicking on the cemetery to establish a fixed location, a quick glance to the bottom of the screen gave me the exact latitude and longitude of its location. 

I passed that information on to the folks at Find-a-grave who have since updated the cemetery record with its exact location. 

There were only a few burials in the cemetery in the last 50 years with the last one dated September 1974.  Looking at the aerial photo, it is readily evident that it doesn’t receive much traffic and little if any trimming and maintenance, but now folks looking for the location can find it by just visiting the Find-a-grave site.

How many abandoned cemeteries are in the U.S. let alone in the world?  Genealogist love tombstone information not necessarily because it is correct but it is a good indicator and it usually gives them the final resting place of their loved ones.

Searching for abandoned cemeteries on the net, turns up a frighteningly large number of results and that is just the cemeteries that have been included in postings on the web.  The results listings seem to go on and on as you modify your search terms.

State, church, civic and other entities are frequently included in the results asking for help or telling how to restore abandoned cemeteries. 

In my wide excursions throughout the west, I’ve found numerous cemeteries in abandoned towns, mining locations and old waystops.  The wooden markers are rarely readable but in some cases the writing is still legible.  I’ve taken photos of the markers and have donated them to local officials and groups who live in the area and say that they will do ‘something’ to ensure the burials aren’t lost to history.  Thus far, that promise is rarely kept.

In the west, the old burial ground are typically overtaken with sage brush in the valleys and forest growth at the mining sites in the mountain.  They could be cleaned and at least partially restored by half a dozen adults with willing hands in the course of a day.  In the east and locations with abundant growth, they may take longer, but the the work can be completed with focused effort.

Are you looking for a good deed opportunity in relation to your interest in genealogy and ancestry?  Consider taking your family, organization, scout troops on a day trip and reclaim one of these sacred sites.   Pay it forward.  You efforts will pay you back with interest one day.   Guaranteed.

Thanks to all of you have already engaged in this wonderful work.

27 April 2010 Posted by | Cemetery, Headstones, Tombstone | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cemetery Soft Shoe

Some of my earliest memories of visiting extended family members involves adhoc meetings by ancestors graves on Decoration Day.

Yes, I’m old enough to know ‘Memorial Day’ as ‘Decoration Day’.

My mother always made sure that we visited all of the graves of her ancestors and my fathers ancestors that were buried within a 30 mile radius on that day in May.

I’d sit in the back seat and hold all of the cans, bottles and containers of flowers upright from grave to grave, cemetery to cemetery so the water didn’t spill and the gathered flowers weren’t abused and contused.

The fragrances were so intense they often left me a bit high.  I never smoked, drank or took drugs.  I’m a flower head.

The Iris and Peonies faired well in these excursions.  The Baby’s Breath and Snowballs tried to be good, but I’d still have to spend a few minutes at each stop retrieving errant pedals that littered the seat and floor.

Mom would talk to her siblings, aunts, uncles and friends at each stop who were also there decorating the graves of our family and ancestors.  They were mini-reunions that often functioned much like a progressive party with people joining, visiting and dropping off as the procession moved from grave to grave in the cemeteries.

During these daylong excursions, I’d carefully look at the names and dates on the stones and try to imagine what the folks buried there looked like in life.   I’d seen most of them in photos but relatively few of them in life.

At each grave I’d look for landmarks that wouldn’t move or change over time and memorize them so I could find the graves again on my own when I was ‘grown up’ and visiting alone or with my own wife and kids.

Always trying to recede into the background during these meet and greets to avoid being stepped on and possibly bored by adult conversation, I’d walk to the side of the tombstones and quietly talk to my ancestors who were buried there.

“Hi.  I’m your grandson.  Things are going pretty good.  I’m in ‘x’ grade now and have learned to read / write / multiply / sing / dance.”

Kids_dancingSing and Dance?  Come on, who’d tell their grandparents that they could sing and dance?  Well, I did.  A dancing instructor came to the little school I attended once a week.  He made us hold hands and touch the girls in the class and parade around doing the jitterbug, quickstep and the dreaded waltz.

Like the other boys in the class, I’d verbally exclaim my disgust with this activity but privately, I was amazed that I eventually learned to not step on my partners feet and toes more than five or ten times a dance.  I’d risen to the state of an accomplished dancer in my opinion, so why not tell my ancestors about something I was so proud of doing?

Thus it was that if any adult had been sharp eyed during the Decoration Day gabfests, they’d have seen a young redheaded kid dancing on his ancestors graves.  I was just showing them what I could do.  Every grandkid shows their grandparents what they have learned.  Don’t they?

The tradition has survived the decades although I don’t think even my wife and kids know about it.   When we visit the same graves plus those of my parents, siblings, nephews, etc., –  even my own future burial spot one day, I always hang back just a step or two behind the rest as we are leaving.  A soft shuffle ensues.

“Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, see what I can do?”  — and to myself – “Here are few steps for the day when you can’t do them yourself in body.  Enjoy the memory.”

5 February 2010 Posted by | Cemetery | , , | Leave a comment

Cemetery Stories

As a youth, my parents and I visited the graves of my fathers parents and grandparents to clear the weeds from them in the week before Memorial Day each year.  Buried in the same plot were my father’s two baby sisters, two uncles and an aunt.

cultivator The cemetery soil should best be described as a granite sandbar that existed in the ancient Lake Bonneville.  The mountain immediately to the north is solid granite and obviously the large granules of granite in cemetery hill came from that source.  They are interspersed with silt from the softer stone in the mountain to the east.

Clearing the weeds was not an easy task.  The soil was typically dry and about as hard as cement.

Dad pushed a hand garden cultivator and I wielded a garden hoe.  Even though the blades had been sharpened before we left home, within minutes they were dull.  Dad’s muscle negated the loss of the blade edge with ever increasing force and sweat.

Mom raked the weeds from the broken soil while I hurried ahead of him trying to break the soil enough for Dad to maintain the cutting momentum.

I wasn’t successful for very long.  Young arms swinging a hoe could not keep up with the two cultivator cutting blades below the surface of the soil for long.

Even though Dad would tell me to work faster, I secretly think he was happy for the short waiting breaks after the first half-hour of hard labor.

As soon as the top five inches of the soil was cut, he would take the rake from Mom and I’d use the old one with the short handle.  Soon the soil was weed free and raked into rectangular humps over the burial location of each person in the plot.

Mom always treated us to cold soda pop and store bought cookies when the job was done.  The treats were luxuries that were rarely found in our home during the rest of the year.

The cookies were great in their drizzled chocolate and nut chip covered glory.  They weren’t better than anything Mom cooked, because she was a terrific cook, but they tasted great.  They were store bought you see.

The best part of the evening was about to start….

Sitting in the shade on the short retaining wall around the plot, Dad would tell me stories about the lives of our ancestors who were buried around us until the evening shadows were long.  I’d heard them in the same setting all of my life, but as I grew older, I’d think to ask questions.  New insights, additional color and texture would emerge in the telling.  Sometimes this would lead to a new story that had slipped his mind previously.

I doubt that I would have heard all of them especially in depth if it weren’t for that setting.  When you sit by an ancestors tombstone and look down at the farms where they lived and are surrounded by the mountains that had such integral relationship in their lives and activities, a lifetime of memories surface with every glance at the scenery.

I’ve always been grateful for the story telling sessions and have passed the stories on to our children and grandchildren.

27 January 2010 Posted by | Ancestors, Cemetery | , , | Leave a comment

Didn’t Have To Travel Far

While spending a day taking tombstone photos recently, I stopped to take photos of the general setting while standing beside the grave my great grandparents.  Pondering the scene, I realized that I could see the tombstones of three sets of 2nd great grandparents, one set of great grandparents and one set of my grandparents with just a slight movement of my eyes.  Other ancestors are buried close by.  In a ten minute drive, I could visit the graves four generations of my ancestors except for one set in California and one in Massachusetts.

Over the years, I’ve encouraged members of my family history classes to visit the burial locations of their ancestors and associated family.  They’ve reported back on the sometimes lengthy trips they’ve made to visit the associated cemeteries.  We’ve enjoyed talking about the discoveries they’ve made in the towns and locations where their ancestors lived. 

Frequently, while standing at the headstones of their ancestors, they’ve experienced a shift in their personal affection for them.   The ties that bind them to their ancestors are strengthened, even inextricably enhanced.

My ancestors gathered to the same general area to live their lives because of religious beliefs and economic opportunity.  Many generations of their descendants still live and have been buried within a thirty mile radius of the original settlements.  Naturally, they have also been buried in the cemeteries in those towns, hence my good fortune in being able to see so many of their graves from one vantage point.

Other ancestral lines were similarly buried in close proximity to each other.  My ancestral families in Plymouth, Massachusetts lived there for over three hundred years.  My ancestral families from Bornholm, Denmark lived, died and buried in close proximity to each other for dozens of generations. 

My ancestors that moved for economic necessity or due to their adventurous spirit have left long trails dotted with wayside stops where they briefly lived, gave birth, married, died and buried some family members.  Vacations over the years have taken us to most of their burial sites, but there are still some graves that haven’t been visited.

What is so important about visiting the grave of an ancestor?  In many cases, their headstone is the only physical item that exists from their day.  I can see their names on birth, marriage and death records as well as in census, wills and property records, but they are usually digital images, not a tangible object. 

Touching their headstone creates a tie between us.  The tactile memory from my fingertips hasn’t dimmed with time.  The feeling of being part of a great discovery was sweet at the time and is still satisfying in the years and decades since the first encounters.

How about you?  Do you have similar groupings of ancestral burials in close proximity of each other or do you have to make a determined  effort to find and visit their graves? 

Either way, the effort to visit their graves is worth your time and expense.  Remember to take photos of their tombstones and of the setting. 

If you have handheld GPS, record the exact location of their graves in your notes and transfer the information  to your genealogy database.  Add the digitized images to their records to enhance their life stories.

Remember to take a photo of yourself standing beside their graves to help you remember the trip and your tie to them and as time goes by, to give your descendants something tangible to view as they look back at their own ancestors.



1 December 2009 Posted by | Cemetery, Headstones, Tombstone | , , | Leave a comment

GPS and Lost Graves

I’ve visited the grave of my great grandfather a number of times over the years.  It was usually covered with Memorial Day flowers as were most of the graves in the cemetery.   It is a memory of a sea of color and fragrant smells – folks greeting each other, pointing to headstones and markers – a reunion of sorts.

In the last decade, mylar windmills, balloons and plastic blossoms have almost overwhelmed the iris, peonies, babies breath and snowball floral tributes left by us older folks.  There seem to be fewer of us visiting the burial locations of our families now.   There are too many big boy toys, outing distractions and to some degree, lack of respect for our lineage that has become associated with Memorial Day in recent years.

I try to show our grandchildren where their ancestors are buried with pilgrimages to the cemetery every year or so hoping they will retain the ancestral memories after I’m gone or can’t remember them myself in some future day.

Apparently that future day is arriving even as I write this note.  I couldn’t find my great grandfather’s grave this year.  I couldn’t find my aunt’s grave.

There are only 20,000+ burials in the cemetery where their bodies reside and the old parts really haven’t changed that much but apparently someone moved their graves during the past couple of years.

At first I chuckled.  Then I frowned and visually searched for the familiar landmarks that I’ve known since my youth.  Finding some of them, I tried to triangulate and ‘walk to the graves’ like I’d done as a young man.   That didn’t work.  Someone really had moved the graves!

Apparently, the only thing that had moved were a few synaptic links in my brain because after an hour of walking up and down row after row of markers, I finally found the headstones.  I enjoyed reading the markers during my walk but had other graves to visit, clean and photograph that day.

I’ve visited the graves of my ancestors in Plymouth, Massachusetts several times, but during the last visit, I couldn’t walk right to the ones that “I was sure of”.  When have you fly across country to visit a cemetery, ‘wasting’ time to find a grave that you knew you can ‘walk to in my sleep’ but can’t find any longer is an expensive and frustrating exercise.

Could it be that I’ve now been to so many cemeteries in so many locations that they are starting to merge in to a blended picture in my memory?  Probably so.  Have I lost synaptic connections?  Probably so.  Hence, I purchased a GPS specifically for my traveling genealogy kit.

gps-display Now when I visit a cemetery, any cemetery, I record the lat / long coordinates of the headstones of my ancestors.  That data is entered in my database directly tied to their burial data.  Yes, I know that my commercial GPS handheld is only accurate to 14 feet or so of the real spot I’m standing on, even if it has acquired eight or more satellites, but, that means that I should only have to walk a maximum of 28 feet in any direction to find the grave in the future if I can’t ‘walk to it in my sleep’ that day.  I can do that in short order.

I record the information on Find-a-grave, Names In Stone, Picasa, Panoramio, my own genealogy sites and other websites when I post headstone photos on them as well.  Maybe the information will help someone else in the future.  Additionally, I can use my web enabled cell phone to look at those sites and remind me where the graves are located in future visits.

One thing is certain.  I will continue to visit more and more cemeteries in the future.  The blended memory picture of them in my mind will continue to meld into an even more generic image as time goes on.  I’ll probably forget how to exactly walk to even more of the graves too.

I won’t be alone.  You’re all walking down the same path with me.  Some of you are ahead of me.  Some of you are behind but if you love to visit cemeteries like I do, you are right on track to arrive at the same destination eventually.   If you haven’t purchased a GPS handheld or have the software in your iPhone or other device, you might as well put one on your ‘stuff I want list’ so your family and friends will know what to get you for Christmas, birthday or graduation.

Once you start documenting the exact location of graves, you’ll find that it adds to the fun of cemetery visits and you too will be able to find your great grandfathers grave in the future.

17 June 2009 Posted by | Cemetery, GPS, Headstones, Photos | , , , , | Leave a comment